Darfur activists support realistic solutions

By Caroline Buddenhagen

In Darfur, Sudan, 7,000 African Union troops have been charged with monitoring peace in a conflict that has so far killed 300,000 people and displaced 2 million more. In a region the size of France, there is one peacekeeper for every 28 square miles. This force is clearly inadequate, but international institutions are finally starting to move: This week the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a resolution to send an assessment team to Darfur within the week, with the ultimate goal of replacing the beleaguered African Union troops with more and better-equipped U.N. peacekeepers.

Since the outbreak of the genocide committed by the Janjaweed, a militia loyal to the Sudanese government, a growing number of activists has sought to raise awareness about the obscene scale of the human destruction in Darfur. Some critics, including Alec Brandon in his column “Darfur Activists Need to Put Up or Shut Up” on 5/16/06, have accused activists of confining their efforts to only this goal. This claim is false and demonstrates ignorance on several levels: the strategy of the anti-genocide campaign, the political issues involved in deploying a peacekeeping force, and the complexity of the conflict in Sudan itself. In fact, concerned activists have proposed policy solutions and are actively working toward them.

From a political standpoint, several factors point to the U.N. as the best forum for international action yet suggest that progress by U.N. bodies must be actively monitored. On May 5, a peace treaty facilitated by the U.N. as well as a U.S. diplomatic delegation headed by Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick was signed between the Sudanese government and the largest of three rebel groups in Abuja, Nigeria. Diplomatic pressure was key at several points during the negotiations. President Bush called Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to ask him to return to the talks after he left in protest and wrote personal letters to two rebel leaders to press them to sign the Abuja agreement. The talks resulted in an agreement between the Sudanese government and the largest rebel group. The other two groups are holding out for further concessions. While the Abuja agreement has significant flaws, it is an important first step that at least provides a framework for peace.

The U.S. has been most effective in influencing the Sudanese government when it has demonstrated that ending the genocide is a U.S. priority. Accordingly, activists need to concentrate on convincing the Bush administration that ending the Darfuri genocide is a priority in the minds of American voters. A Zogby International poll commissioned by the International Crisis Group found that 84 percent of respondents thought that the U.S. should not tolerate attacks on civilians in Darfur and should use its military assets, short of inserting U.S. combat troops on the ground to protect civilians, to help end them. This expression of commitment is made more credible to both the U.S. and Sudanese governments by domestic political efforts, such as a march in Washington on April 30 that drew several thousand people. These domestic political expressions gain particular weight in an important election year.

Some have questioned why activists, if they are seriously committed to ending the genocide in Darfur, do not advocate sending U.S. troops to the area. This suggestion is politically and militarily infeasible. Overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. lacks the capability and the will to engage in further unilateral military action. NATO troops, another suggestion, have the disadvantage of being supplied almost exclusively by former colonial powers, a point Madeleine Albright noted in her remarks on Wednesday at International House. An effective peacekeeping force must not only have sufficient numbers and supplies but must also be multinational.

Now that the Abuja agreement has been signed, the next hurdle is inducing the government of Sudan to allow U.N. troops into the country. The government of Sudan prefers to maintain the understaffed and increasingly unpopular African Union troops as a token offering to peace efforts. Until recently, the Security Council did not move to replace African Union peacekeepers with U.N. troops due to objections from China and Russia, which have extensive trade relationships with Sudan. The unanimous Security Council resolution to begin the process of converting to a U.N. force is a positive sign of diplomatic progress with the potential for real effects. Thus, within the current crisis, diplomatic efforts both internal and external to the U.N. have been valuable. Activist calls for further diplomatic action are strategic and realistic.

Economically, the U.S. has less leverage, because of sanctions imposed on Sudan in 1997. Chinese and Russian investment, however, has been critical in maintaining the current regime. Sudan produces 401,300 barrels of oil per day, much of which is purchased by China. China has built a pipeline to the Red Sea and an oil refinery near Khartoum as investments in Sudan’s budding oil industry. These investments continue to fund the government’s procurement of arms used against rebels and innocent civilians. Thus divestment campaigns to end U.S. investment in the companies propping up the government of Sudan are crucial to cutting off the means of genocide.

The effectiveness of divestment in the current conflict has also been demonstrated. In 2003 when Talisman Energy, a Canadian oil and gas company, decided to end its operations in Sudan after widespread pressure from Western investors over atrocities committed by the government of Sudan during the North-South civil war, two other international oil companies sold their stakes in Sudan. Faced with the prospect of further international investment flight, the government of Sudan signed the Naivasha Treaty with rebels in the south soon afterwards.

Rhetoric and publicity are not enough to end the current crisis, but simplistic calls for more troops and denigration of the activists working towards change are not helpful either. No one wants Darfur to become Rwanda, but the moral imperative created by this comparison is being answered. It will be answered best by a multifaceted strategy that takes account of the military, political, and economic realities of the situation.